- Britain’s Ethical Foreign Policy
- Spreading the Zone of Peace through Democratization: How and Why?
- Realists Deeming Iraq and Vietnam Unnecessary Wars
- Assessing the Rationale of the 1999 Kosovo Bombing Campaign
- Fighting over Resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Allowing Exceptions for the Sake of Security
International Political Theory: can there be ethics and justice in international affairs?
‘Isn’t this what it really comes down to? When a nation’s own economic interests coincide with an ethical foreign policy then commercial interests hold sway. That is the reality, isn’t it?’ (BBC, 14 May 1997).
This blunt question was posed to former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in a radio interview at the BBC on 14 May 1997, two days after New Labour had launched a Mission Statement where Britain’s foreign policy was said to require ‘an ethical dimension’. This seemingly uncontroversial ambition represented a stark break with the past, because ‘in the preceding fifty years’, according to Wheeler and Dunne, ‘there had been no public articulation of a conceptual framework for understanding the means and ends of foreign policy’ by any British government (1998: 847). Accordingly, the move was quickly picked up by the press and presented as the most intriguing aspect of the new government’s foreign policy agenda, as exemplified by a morning headline in the Daily Telegraph: ‘Cook to lead the Foreign Office on Moral Crusade’ (Electronic Telegraph, 13 May 1997, quoted in Wheeler and Dunne 1998: 847).
The language used by Cook and Prime Minister Tony Blair after their entrance into government in 1997, suggested a different foreign policy orientation than that which had been pursued under the previous Conservative administration. Wheeler argues that New Labour needed to adapt a more forward-looking image of Britain on the international stage, distant from that of patriotism and imperialist undercurrents (Wheeler and Dunne 1998: 850). In this light, the call for an ‘ethical dimension’ and ‘internationalism’ could be seen as part of an integrated strategy towards a more respected and influential stance at an increasingly interdependent international arena. However, as the question posed in the beginning illustrates, critics were quick to deem the language of ‘ethics’ and ‘human rights’ as mere hypocrisy, covering up an underlying egoistic foreign policy agenda. Is it possible for any government’s foreign policy to be truly ethical? Furthermore, can there be a role at all for morality in foreign policy? By applying core questions of traditional political enquiry on the international arena, the school of International Political Theory (IPT) seeks to provide answers.
According to Chris Brown, the designated term ‘ethical foreign policy’ indicates, as a starting point of reference, that there is something peculiar about foreign affairs that makes if difficult to take ethical and moral considerations for granted (Brown 2001). Brown argues that the widespread cynical belief that international politics takes place in an arena stripped of morality stems from a popular conviction that ‘to behave morally is to act without regard for one’s own interest’. If applied to international politics, such conviction gives fuel to the argument that the pursuit of (state) interests automatically rules out taking ethical matters into consideration along the way (mistakenly, according to Brown, this view is often referred to as the theoretical tradition of realism). The bottom line is that the pursuit of national foreign policy and moral convictions are considered to be incompatible objectives. Contrary to the domestic setting, where actions by individuals are evaluated on the basis of many overlapping considerations, actions by states at the international level are met with demands of ‘moral absolutism’. Behaviour short of ‘moral purity’ is met with criticisms of being hypocrisy (Krasner 1999). Brown is strongly opposed to setting such a high threshold of ‘rightful intention’, and draws parallels with moral philosophy by arguing that ‘the notion that action can only be described as ethical if motives are absolutely pure and untainted by self-interest is bizarre’. IPT should be seen as a broad tradition focusing on the rapprochement between political theory and IR theory, applying core questions of traditional political enquiry on the international arena. Key texts by Hobbes and Kant, he argues, reveals no outspoken contradiction between one’s own interests and the demands of morality (Brown 2001: 180). Indeed, ‘even Kant recognized that categorical imperatives would not be realizable in all instances’ (Wheeler and Dunne 2003: 15)
Returning to the context of Britain, Brown criticizes the New Labour government’s determination to promote a more ethical foreign policy, but not for the wish to apply an ethical dimension in itself. The criticism stems from what Brown considers to be an inadequate strategy, by aiming too high and too low at the same time. By letting the language for human rights monopolize the ethical dimension of foreign policy, other highly important normative issues involved in foreign policy became automatically excluded. The core argument, as presented by Brown, is that, despite the mix of motives, ethical and non-ethical alike, foreign policy should try to strike a correct balance between ‘the general good and narrow self-interests’, and that this does not automatically translate into hypocrisy. States, like all other actors, have mixed motives for their actions and should be judged accordingly (Wheeler and Dunne 2003: 16). The simple acknowledgement that material gains and moral impulses are always intertwined should not give rise to criticisms that the overall agenda is inherently unethical. Upholding human rights, according to Brown, should be one out of many goals in a multifaceted foreign policy agenda, falling short of moral absolutism but, indeed, with an integrated ‘ethical dimension’.
With an eye to Britain’s ethical foreign policy agenda, Wheeler and Dunne pose the question: ‘how much sacrifice is required on the part of a state in order for its foreign policy to be moral in the sense that it is adequately other regarding?’ (2003: 15). Indeed, the ‘ethical dimension’ of New Labour’s foreign policy pursued in the decade after entering government in 1997 was questioned on the base of various arms sales scandals (hereunder the ‘Sandline Affair’, violating a UN arms embargo), not to mention the mere engagement as well as reported misconducts of British soldiers in the Iraq war. These issues have fuelled the interpretation of ‘ethical foreign policy’ as an oxymoron. However, drawing upon insights from classical political theory, as argued by Brown, the quest for moral absolutism in international affairs rests on a misreading of both the nature of foreign policy and of the requirements of morality (2001: 184). The question up for discussion is whether New Labour succeeded in striking the correct balance between the two.Back to top
Brown, C. (2001) ‘Ethics, Interests and Foreign Policy’, in K. E. Smith and M. Light (eds), Ethics and Foreign Policy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Krasner, S. (1999) Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Wheeler, N. and Dunne, T. (1998) ‘Good International Citizenship: A Third Way for British Foreign Policy’, International Affairs, 74, 4: 847–70.
Wheeler. N. and Dunne, T. (2003) ‘Moral Britannia? Evaluating the Ethical Dimension in Labour’s Foreign Policy’, Foreign Policy Centre, www.fpc.org.uk
Guardian’s special reports on Labour’s ethical foreign policy:
1997 Mission Statement:
1997 BBC interview:
‘Sandline Affair’, available at:
In the 1994 State of the Union Address to the Congress, US President Bill Clinton promoted his strategy for enhancing national security through the cultivation of democracy abroad: ‘Democracies don’t attack each other’ (Clinton 1994). President George W. Bush used a similar statement some years later, when he argued, in 2005, that ‘the reason why I’m so strong on democracy is democracies don’t go to war with each other’ (Bush 2005). These understandings of the peaceful powers of democracy build directly upon Immanuel Kant’s ideas on how to transform the international scene into a sphere of perpetual peace, and quantitative research confirming the seemingly peaceful nature of democracies vis-à-vis each other. Operating with the Correlates of War Project measurements (defining war as a military conflict with more than 1,000 killed in battle in one year), researchers have measured that almost no democratic states have fought wars against other democratic states and, when it did occur, this was between newly established democracies (Doyle 1983a, 1983b). With the quest to extend global zones of peace and enhance national security, the democratic peace theory was incremental in justifying and guiding the USA’s resort to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The definitions of war and democracy applied in such qualitative research are, however, highly disputed among scholars. Similarly, the observation that democracy as a political system is a very recently embraced form of governance (Freedom House 1999) has given leverage to critical arguments that the peaceful phenomenon may be a mere statistical aberration, in particular when democracies are narrowly defined (Navari 2008: 36–7). Still, despite high levels of disputes, the idea that democracies do not fight each other is considered to be the closest thing to an empirical law in the study of international relations (Levy 1989: 88).
Classical authors have, in general, not been in favour of the notion of democratic accountability in foreign affairs, just in the same way as democracy as a political system was met with suspicion until the 18th–19th century. Kant’s ‘Perpetual Peace’ pamphlet presented ideas on how the international arena should be reformed to a sphere of perpetual peace through democratization, and thus represented a break with the political tradition that largely conceived the masses as an ‘irrational force’. The democratic peace theory pinpoints core believes of liberal theorizing, by seeing the possibilities of ‘domesticating’ international affairs through the projection of values of order, liberty justice and toleration into international relations (Dunne 2010: 111). Just as domestic (democratic) institutions provide prosperity to their citizens through the protection of these values nationally, so can international institutions serve similar functions at the decentralized, international level.
The promises of the democratic peace theory have, as already mentioned, translated into expectations that, by spreading democracy, one can hope to extend the zone of peace that has been achieved among democracies. The doctrine is strongly present both in the foreign policy agendas of states, witnessed through the determination to ‘export’ liberal democracy to countries, and international institutions, exemplified by the role of democratic transitions in the UN’s peace-building programmes (Navari 2008: 28). Overall, the democratic peace theory currently serves an agenda-setting function at the international arena. However, despite this function, there are numerous aspects of the theory that are both criticized and disputed. The first regards the ‘dark side of liberalism’ – that is, the aggressive way in which the theory is being used to defend and justify foreign interventions (Geis et al. 2006). The latter points to the scholarly dispute regarding what it is exactly about democracies that (seemingly) makes them less reluctant to go to war with each other. Furthermore, can one expand the zone of peace by simply spreading the political system of democracy?
Two contrasting explanations have emerged in explaining the causes for the democratic peace and thus, implicitly, how the zone of peace can be extended. By arguing that ‘ideas matter’, John M. Owen (1994) draws attention to a specific form of liberal-democratic culture that lead to high levels of trust between equally minded states (and conversely, to low levels of trusts between democracies and non-democracies). In short, liberal ideas are held to be the main source behind the distinctive foreign polices of liberal democracies, which can be termed the ‘normative explanation’. Another way of explaining the democratic peace is inherently structural, by attributing the democratic peace to the institutional constraints that accompany a democratic way of governing; in other words, the checks and balances imposed by the division of powers and the need to ensure popular support by avoiding risks (Oren 1995: 149). By putting emphasis on the role of institutions, elections and free media, the structural approach to democratization argues that liberal democracies by their institutions, not culture, can constrain war-prone behaviour (Wagner 2007: 9).
As follows from this brief outline, one can conclude that the democratic peace thesis indicates that war between democracies is less likely to occur; it does not, however, pinpoint exactly why this is so, which poses a challenge to the much-wanted spread of the ‘zone of peace’. Can one expect that an imposed democracy, for example, would inhabit the same peaceful functions as a democratic state that developed and matured over a longer period of time? If embedded liberal ideas are the main source behind the peaceful attitude of democracies towards each other, ‘imposed democratization’, with the establishment of free elections regardless of the lack of a democratic culture, appears to be an ill-advised strategy. Conversely, Barnett has warned against the UN approach to democratization in post-conflict zones by its outspoken emphasis on building a democratic culture through the mobilization of social forces – that is, the ‘civil society approach’. Rather, he argues, focus should be kept more narrowly on building stable state institutions, since the grassroots approach to reconstruction and reconciliation in unstable and divided society can do more harm than good (Barnett 2006: 111–12). Looking to countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where the establishment of democracy has been an outspoken goal since the very beginning of the military campaigns, it appears that the above-mentioned questions have not been successfully answered.
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Barnett, M. N. (2006) ‘Building a Republican Peace: Stabilizing States after War’, International Security, 30, 4: 87–112.
Bush, G. W. (2005) Address, available at:
Clinton, B. (1994) State of the Union Address, available at:
Doyle, M. W. (1983b) ‘Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs, Part II’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 12, 4: 323– 53.
Dunne, T. (2010) ‘Liberalism’, in J. Baylis, S. Smith and P. Owens (eds) The Globalization of World Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Freedom House (1999) ‘Democracy’s Century: A Survey of Global Political Change in the 20th Century’, available at:
Geis, A. Brock, L. and Muller, H. (2006) Democratic Wars: Looking at the Dark Side of Democratic Peace, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Levy, J. S. (1989) ‘Domestic Politics and War’, in R. Rotberg and T. K. Rabb (eds), The Origin and Prevention of Major Wars, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Oren, I. (1995) ‘The Subjectivity of the “Democratic” Peace: Changing US Perceptions of Imperial Gernamy’, Internatioal Securty, 20, 2: 147–84.
Owen, J. M. (1994) ‘How Liberalism Produces Democratic Peace’, International Secuirty, 19, 2: 87–125.
Navari, C. (2008) ‘Liberalism’, in Williams, P. D. (ed.) Security Studies, Routledge.
Wagner, W. (2007) ‘The Democratic Deficit in the EU’s Security and Defense Policy – Why Bother?’, Oslo: RECON online Working Paper 2007/10, available at:
Correlates of War official website:
In the critical article ‘An Unnecessary War’, published in Foreign Affairs in January 2003, realists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt warned the Bush Administration about the dangers of invading Iraq to depose Saddam Husain. In short, they argued that war-fighting was the wrong way to go, since Hussein could be controlled through other means. Less than two months later, the Administration launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the scholars’ warnings ended up in the pile of ‘ignored objections’, accompanied by a massive amount of negative opinions from state leaders and institutions worldwide. By their firm placement within the American realist tradition of IR, it is tempting to draw a parallel to the realist Hans Morgenthau’s opposition towards the Vietnam War in the 1960s. In an article in The New York Times, 18 April 1965, Morgenthau publicly opposed the war against North Vietnam, largely on the grounds that it was an unnecessary war, doomed to fail in terms of meeting its objectives.
Seven years after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom and 35 years after the ending of the military engagement in Vietnam, the aversions presented by the scholars appear largely to have corresponded with the actual development in each of the conflicts. Battling the low-tech insurgency in Vietnam proved disastrous for the US administration of the time, and gave rise to the expression ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, which is defined as the fear of American politicians of losing home forces lives in overseas operations that ultimately prove futile’. Similarly, the ongoing conflict in Iraq has not met the objectives of establishing democracy and stability, and experts have referred to it as the greatest strategic disaster in American history (Cockburn, 2006). Mearsheimer, Walt and Morgenthau argued that the situations in Iraq and Vietnam respectively did not warrant the use of force. The logic of realist theory explains why.
The main argument brought forward by Mearsheimer and Walt in early 2003 was that deterrence and containment, not a military campaign, would be the right way to prevent Saddam Hussein from developing and using weapons of mass destruction: ‘ the United States can contain Iraq effectively – even if Saddam has nuclear weapons – just as it contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War’ (Mearsheimer and Walt 2003). This indicates that neither Mearsheimer nor Walt saw Iraq and Saddam Hussein as ‘’the real challenge’ in the Middle East, a point repeated by Schmidt and Williams: ‘the invasion of Iraq would direct attention away from dealing with the real terrorist threat posed by al Qaeda, including the search for Osama bin Laden and the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan’ (2008: 202). The need to crush Iraq through a military campaign was simply not present, as there were no existential threats facing the national interests of the USA (including the non-proved existence of WMDs). On the contrary, it was argued that the campaign could possible heighten the level of insecurity through increasing both the negative images of the USA in the Islamic world and the risk of terrorism. By aggressively attacking another states that could have been contained through other means, the USA acted as a ‘mindless aggressor’ (Mearsheimer, 2001: 40), a ‘self defeating behavior’ (Walt, 1987: 27), according to previous publications by the two scholars.
Another important warning present within the critique of the Iraq War, was the aversion against pursing a ‘moralistic foreign policy crusade’ (Schmidt and Williams 2008: 202), through the liberal notion of spreading democracy. This largely corresponds to the harsh critique by Morgenthau half a century earlier, where he warned strongly against ‘the dangers of conceptualizing the national interests in universalistic moral terms’ (Morgenthau 1965). Not least was this critique directed against the American efforts to democratize Vietnam, which was seen as an entirely unrealistic project (Mearsheimer 2002). This does not translate into an imbedded opposition towards the spread of democracy, but it does reveal a common view among the scholars, seeing as gloomy the prospects of Morgenthau’s ‘imposing’ of democracy in areas of the world where there is little experience of that form of government.
A final similar point raised by Mearsheimer, Walt and Morgenthau pertained to the fallacy of ignoring the powers of nationalism, in particular when compared with the weaker powers of democracy. Looking to Vietnam, Morgenthau argued that nationalism was the ideological denominator that the USA was fighting against, not communism. As such, their opponents ‘’would invariably view American troops in their midst as occupiers which they would fight hard to expel’, rather than democratic liberators (Mearsheimer 2002). In an identical manner, Mearsheimer warned against the power of nationalism in Iraq, critiquing the belief of neo-conservative Bush Administration that the local Iraqi population would receive the ‘spread’ of democracy in positive terms, inevitably trumping nationalist sentiments (Mearsheimer 2002).
Often mistakenly portrayed as a rather brutal theory of IR, neo-realists and classical realists alike argue from the point of view that they consider to be ‘a rational understanding of the national interests’ (Dunne and Schmidt 2010: 104). In their critiques, Mearsheimer, Walt and Morgenthau drew attention towards the fulfilment of unrealistic foreign policy objectives by choice, not by necessity (‘This war would be one the Bush administration chose to fight but did not have to fight’, according to Mearsheimer and Walt 2003), which presents a clash with key assumptions in realist theory: in an anarchic international arena, foreign policy choices are made upon rational calculations of power and security, not upon choices of ‘adventurous experiments’ coupled with assisting moral rationales.
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Cockburn, P. (2006) The Occupation: War, Resistance and Everyday Life, London: Verso.Dunne. T. and Schmidt, B. C. (2010) ‘Realism’, in J. Baylis, S. Smith and P. Owens (eds) The Globalization of World Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mearsheimer, J. J. and Walt, S. (2003) ‘An Unnecessary War’, Foreign Affairs, January/February.
Mearsheimer, J. (2001) The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York: W. W. Norton.
Mearsheimer, J. (2005) ‘Hans Morgenthau and the Iraq War: Realism versus Neo-Conservatism’, available at:
Morgenthau, H. (1965) ‘We Are Deluding Ourselves in Vietnam’, The New York Times, 18 April 1965, available at:
Schmidt, B. C. and Williams, M. C. (2008) ‘The Bush Doctrine and the Iraq War: Neoconservatives Versus Realists’, Security Studies, 17, 2: 191–220.
Walt, S. M. (1987) The Origins of Alliances, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
‘War with Iraq is Not in America’s National Interest’, The New York Times, 26 September 2002, available at:
The unauthorized NATO military intervention against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) lasted from 24 March until 11 June 1999. After Serbia’s capitulation at Kumanoava on 9 June, the territory of Kosovo was placed under a de facto international protectorate of the newly established United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Serbia’s de jure sovereignty over the territory was confirmed by Security Council Resolution 1244, but this did not prevent Kosovo from pursuing a unilateral declaration of independence on 22 February 2008. On 22 July 2010 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated that Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence represented no violation of international law, but the case of Kosovo still remains a scholarly as well as a political source of division.
The bombing campaign on Serbian territory forced important questions to be tabled about the rules and boundaries for action in the international arena. Disagreements concerning state sovereignty, territorial integrity, human rights protection, self-determination and the responsibility/ limitations of the international community were all evident in the context of Kosovo, and serve as illustrations of the many conflicting sets of norms and legal principles in the international arena. Coupled with theoretical insight from the English School, it is possible to trace some explanations both behind the resort to force in the first place and its implications on the international order.
According to English School theorist Hedley Bull, international society exists when a group of states recognize that they are connected to each other through common interests, and that this recognition is expressed through behaviour confirming the rules and norms of that society and the engagement in common institutions (Bull 1977: 13). International society is thus reproduced and sustained by states adhering to a set of rules and in accordance with shared expectations, which again is seen as mitigating the dangers of anarchy. According to the pluralist conception of the English School, the states within international society each ‘houses a political community that constructs its own idea of the good life and conceptions of justice’ (Bellamy 2005: 6–7). As such, pluralists argue that universal ethics and human rights are culturally biased, and that states’ obligations vis-à-vis each other are limited to working for the sustainability of international society through upholding the foundational norms of sovereignty and non-intervention. According to this strand, the unauthorized use of force is by definition damaging for the society as a whole, by representing an inherent threat to the state-based structure of international society (Jackson 2000). On the contrary, the solidarist conception argues that highly diverse states indeed can reach agreement about substantive moral standards, which defers a responsibility of upholding such standards in case of violation (Wheeler 2007). Solidarists see the unauthorized use of force as legitimate if the underlying rational is to ‘uphold the society’s moral purpose’. As such, humanitarian interventions can in extreme cases be seen not only as a legitimate option, but, furthermore, as a duty. Seeing NATO’s humanitarian intervention in Kosovo and the declaration of independence nine years later from these two theoretical perspectives pinpoints the existence of conflicting international norms in the international arena. Should NATO’s campaign have been condemned on the grounds that it violated the established rules of international society, and as such endangered disrespect for the principles of mutual recognition and sustainability of the society as a whole? Or, on the contrary, should the campaign be heralded for ending civilian suffering in Kosovo and for having prevented a somewhat similar situation in the Bosnian nightmare?
Unauthorized humanitarian interventions, like the one in Kosovo, crystallize the divisions between pluralists and solidarists by violating positive law, represented by the UN Charter’s prohibition of the use of force by states (except in self-defence) ‘against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state’ (Article 2.4). Still, the solidarist argument goes, the violation of positive law can be considered the only legitimate way when a humanitarian catastrophe is threatened. As such, solidarists inhabit a much stronger belief in the stability of the international order than pluralists, by trusting that society would not suffer an untenable strike by tolerating an exception to the general rule of non-interference. By focusing on the need to ensurine that the legal rules of international society fulfil the purposes for which they were originally created (Koskenniemi 2005: 590), the solidarist conception appears to have been remarkably present in the report of the Independent (Goldstone) Commission in Kosovo, which concluded that NATO’s Kosovo campaign was ‘illegal but legitimate’ (Franck 2002: 181).
Despite representing ideal types, the differences between pluralism and solidarism within the English School tradition become striking when confronted with situations in the international arena that require prioritizing in terms of which norm one should adhere to: protecting society through adhering to established rules (first and foremost by respecting the principles of sovereignty and non-interference), or enforcing moral standards/universal justice in order to uphold ‘ society’s moral purpose’. Despite being framed in the international society tradition, the issues raised in the debate between pluralist and solidarist regarding humanitarian intervention mirror a much deeper ‘existential’ IR debate about where to locate the overall structuring principle in the international arena between the need for order or the desire for justice (Sterling-Folker 2006: 307).
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Bellamy, A. J. (ed.) (2005) International Society and its Critics, New York: Oxford University Press.
Bull, H. (1977) The Anarchic Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, New York: Columbia University Press.
Franck, T. (2002) Recourse to Force: State Action Against Threats and Armed Attacks, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jackson, R. (2000) The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Koskenniemi, M. (2005) From Apology to Utopia: The Structure of International Legal Argument. Reissue with new epilogue, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Knudsen, T. B. (2006) ‘The English School: Sovereignty and International Law’, in J. Sterling-Folker, Making Sense of International Relations Theory, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Sterling-Folker, J. (2006) Making Sense of International Relations Theory, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Wheeler, N. (2007) ‘The Kosovo Bombing Campaign’, in C. Reus-Smith The Politics of International Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Independent International Commission on Kosovo, available at:
International Court of Justice 22 July 2010, Accordance with International Law of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in respect of Kosovo
Kosovo Assembly 18 February 2008, Kosovo Declaration of Independence, available at www.assembly-kosova.org/?cid=2,128,1635
Security Council Resolutions 1244 (1999), S/RES/1244 (1999), available at:
On the history of Kosovo: Weller, M. (2009) Contested Statehood: Kosovo’s Struggle for Independence, New York: Oxford University Press.
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In 2003 the Security Council made public a widely discussed report on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where it was stated that the conflict in the eastern part of the DRC was connected to the control and trade of key minerals. The Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources named around 125 companies and individuals worldwide whose involvement in the illicit trade contributes to the enduring conflict (Panel of Experts 2003). The desire to control eastern DRC’s rich mineral deposits stands out as a clear motivation for the ongoing conflict, as the vast resources have acted as a magnet for rebel groups and military factions throughout the last 12 years, and could be labelled a ‘resource war’, based on the immense impact of the country’s national resources on its domestic security. The coupling of illegal economic activity and political conflicts is not a new combination. However, the proliferation of trade liberalization and economic globalization can be seen as having strengthened the impact of these criminal networks.
In New and Old Wars, Mary Kaldor addresses the phenomenon that contemporary warfare is less dependent upon solid state budgets and draws instead more heavily upon other sources, as fighting units finance themselves through plunder and the black market, or through external assistance. With an eye to the situation in the DRC, this is not to say that the economic dynamics can explain the full range of motivations and tactics of all protagonists in the conflicts. For a comprehensive understanding of the motives and drivers of the perpetrators, a full analysis of individual, group-level and macro-level causes should be addressed. However, it is widely acknowledged that the ongoing conflict in the eastern DRC to a very large degree is structured around the territory’s vast natural resources. Through the ‘informalization’ of the economy, that is, the channelization of resources outside the realm of the state regulation, the informal war-economy is born (Kaldor 2008: 117). The dynamic works along two tracks: the economic revenues are necessary to the warring parties in order to sustain the war, but provide, in addition, part of the motivation for war in the first place (Kaldor 2008) Put simply, economic globalization has both increased the opportunities for economic motives in contemporary warfare as a result of trans-border trade and, at the same time, it facilitates the conditions for the expansion of transnational organized crime. The latter is a consequence of the liberalization of trade and finance, which has undoubtedly boosted economic prosperity in a range of sectors. Similarly, flows in communication and information technology, as well as the expansion of transport networks have contributed to the same positive results. Parallel with this development, however, widespread liberalization and the forces of globalization have also provided avenues for the operations of criminal activities and illegal transnational export networks (O’Brien and Williams 2007: 419), as the example from the DRC underlines. International Political Economy, through its intersection between international economics and politics, provides helpful tools when trying to analyze the implications of trade-liberalization and economic globalization on conflict zones, by, for example, distinguishing states according to their capacity to shape and respond to globalization (Woods 2010: 255). For a state like the DRC, which never inhabited functions associated with the Western ‘Weberian state ideal’ (Tull 2003: 430), this twofold separation of impact becomes highly relevant.
Applying IPE to the field of IR provides new insights into the implications of trade-liberalization and economic globalization on international security. Insights from studies of privatization (hereunder New Public Management strategies), regulation vs laissez-faire and interdependence are necessary to understand the dynamics of new security-providing actors. Similarly, IPE offers insight on how trade-liberalization (hereunder privatization) and economic globalization impacts states in very different ways. It takes no more than a quick glance to Afghanistan’s poppy industry or the coltane extraction industry in the Democratic Republic of Congo to realize that the intermingling of trade, transport, security and war requires a theoretical framework that includes all components.
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Baylis, J., Smith, S. and Owens, P. (eds) (2010) The Globalization of World Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kaldor, M. (2008) New and Old Wars (2008), Cambridge: Polity Press.
O’Brien, R. and Williams, M. (2007) Global Political Economy, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources, Report S/2003/1027, available at:
Tull, D. M. (2003), ‘A Reconfiguration of Political Order? The State of the State in North Kivu (DR Congo)’, African Affairs, 102: 429–46.
Woods, N. (2010) ‘International Political Economy in an Age of Globalisation’, in J. Baylis, S. Smith and P. Owens (eds), The Globalization of World Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Global Witness Report (2009) ‘Faced With a Gun What Can You Do?’ War and the Militarization of Mining in Eastern Congo, July, available at:
Human Rights Watch (2009) The Democratic Republic of the Congo: Country Report 2009, available at:
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The shock caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks led many high-ranked security officials to view basic principles of due process and respect for human rights as entailing unacceptable risks. This became a characteristic of the Bush Administration in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and resulted in a range of initiatives, largely stripped of human rights precautions, such as Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the practice of extraordinary rendition. The same tendency could also be seen within the UN system through the establishment of the Security Council’s counter-terrorism regime, widely held to have put human rights in second place after combating terrorism (Foot 2007: 492). Despite measurable developments taken towards enduring greater respect for human rights since 2001, both by the US and by the Security Council, it remains a point for discussion that, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a consensus prevailed among states that human rights could be sacrificed, even if only for a shorter period of time (Foot 2007; Johnstone 2008). How could such a consensus occur?
In ‘Exceptionalism and the “War on Terror”’, Claudia Aradau and Rens van Munster explore the constitutive power of the exception, and its impact on the society (2009: 691). Through securitization, the risk posed by terrorism ‘unpacked the state of exception as a useful tool for apprehending the constitution of domestic and global power relations’, according to the scholars (Aradau and van Munster 2009: 697). Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition were just some of the ‘exceptional’ practices deployed in the war on terror that would, under normal circumstances, not have been tolerated. It was Buzan, Waever and de Wilde who developed the securitization thesis, defined as ‘the construction of an existential threat to a valued referent object legitimizing the imposition of exceptional political rules’ (1998). Accordingly, securitization is a process in which an issue is moved into a special category, creating a specific social situation in which action is demanded. The critique embedded in securitization theory against the more conventional IR theories can be found in its position of the question: ‘what is security?’ ‘Once scholars let go of the idea that security is about specific referent objects (such as states) and/or about a specific kind of threat (such as military), the question of what makes a problems a security problem moves to centre stage’, according to Huysmans (2007: 54). The process of securitization rests upon a shared understanding by a collective of what constitutes a threat at the given time (Buzan et al. 1998: 33), and the actual securitization of an issue takes pace through a ‘speech act’ – that is, a rhetorical struggle;when successfully preformed, the issue moves from being, for example, an economic problem to a security problem (Buzan et al. 1998: 33). By referring to ‘security’, a high-ranked official/state representative declares some kind of an emergency condition, according to Buzan et. al. (1998: 21), and extraordinary measures are not only demanded, but, furthermore, largely justified. This underlines both the gravity and the powers (and dangers) embedded in such a move. Indeed, securitization theory has been applied to a wide array of issues, stretching from migration (Aradau and van Munster 2009) to environmental challenges (Buckland 2007). Terrorism has similarly received much attention (hereunder the legitimization of ‘exceptionalist’ policies against perceived terrorists in the wake of the securitization), as exemplified by the US ‘war on terror’. Through public speeches in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the al Qaeda terrorist network and associates became quickly portrayed as the embodiment of pure and destructive evil, as unrepresentative and as inherently anti-democratic. The USA, NATO and the EU quickly designated terrorism as the existential threat to democracies. As a continuation of this, the portrayal of terrorism as an existential threat justified extraordinary emergency measures inside and outside the USA.
The exact deteriorating effects of ‘exceptionalism’ on political communities (hereunder democracy and the rule of law) is a field for continued research, but at the very least, the exeptionalist literature highlights some of the challenges stemming from an increasing tendency to ‘securitize’ various aspects of society. Building upon elements from social constructivism, but also risk-literature, exceptionalism, in international as well as national politics, casts light on some novel features currently evident in the international arena not captured by the more mainstream IR theories. According to the securitization thesis, the successful framing of a societal problem as a security challenge allows for an upgrading in the hierarchy of political priorities. It also, however, brings to the forefront disturbing issues such as who has the power to determine the security agenda through the process of securitization, and how waterproof our political systems are, based upon democracy and the rule of law, when a (seemingly) imminent security challenge requires exceptional measures. In the case of the international community’s response to the 9/11 attacks, the answer to the latter question signals that the agenda-setting powers of successful securitization might have larger implications on our political communities than we would like to admit.
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Aradau, C. and van Munster, R. (2009) ‘Exceptionalism and the “War on Terror”’,British Journal of Criminology, 49: 686–701.
Buckland, Ben (2007) ‘A Climate of War? Stopping the Securitization of Global Climate Change’, International Peace Bureau, Geneva. Available at:
Buzan, Barry, Waever, Ole and de Wilde, Jaap (1998) Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Foot, R. (2007) ‘The United Nations, Counter Terrorism, and Human Rights: Institutional Adaptions and Embedded Ideas’, Human Rights Quarterly, 29, 2.
Huysmans, J. (2007) ‘Revisiting Copenhagen: Or, on the Creative Development of a Security Studies Agenda in Europe’, International Security, 4: 43–67.
Johnstone, I. (2008) ‘Legislation and Adjucation in the UN Security Council: Bringing down the Deliberative Deficit’, The American Journal of International Law, 102, 2.
Goldman, R. (2005) Promotion and Protection of Human Rights: Protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, UN Doc E/CN.4/2005/103.
Human Rights Watch, Opportunism in the Face of Tragedy: Repression in the Name of Anti-terrorism, available at:
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